No one knows what shape wireless connectivity will eventually take, but it has become a Holy Grail for chip suppliers rapidly rolling out solutions for everything from the converged handheld all-in-one communications appliance to an Internet thermos.
At the Embedded Systems Conference here and the PCIA Global XChange show in Chicago last week, several chip companies said they are developing devices to address high-bandwidth Internet, voice, data, and related services for wireless handheld appliances.
Some observers, like Hans Geyer, vice president of Intel Corp.'s Cellular Communications Division in Folsom, Calif., expect little delineation between a cellular handset and a PDA within two or three years, but others debated how quickly and completely the convergence will occur.
"Do consumers really want to make phone calls on their PDA?" asked Jeff Beir of Berkeley Design Research, Berkeley, Calif. "The converged cell phone and PDA has been tried before, and it wasn't successful. It's not clear that is really the way things need to go."
However, Jack Quinn, an analyst at MicroLogic Research in Phoenix, expects the market to readily accept the converged communication device. "I think it will be a tremendous market," he said.
"Given a fold-out keyboard, and with the understanding of the restraints of the display size, there is no reason that in a year or two, a PDA won't be able to do what a laptop computer does today."
This "what or when?" debate hasn't deterred chip makers.
Texas Instruments Inc., which has earned a commanding presence with its DSP/ARM-based solution in cellular handsets, revealed that it will develop a 3G wireless product for Handspring Corp.'s line of Visor PDAs.
The announcement was a potential blow to Motorola Inc.'s Semiconductor Products Sector (SPS), whose Dragonball processors are used in most PDAs, including the Visor and 3Com Corp.'s Palm PDAs.
Officials at 3Com have said they are evaluating the ARM-processor architecture for future Palm devices, and speculation has been rampant that 3Com may turn to Intel's recently announced XScale, a second-generation version of the Strong-ARM processor.
"Dragonball has dominance in the market, and can be found in 70% to 80% of all PDAs," said Kyle Harper, business manager of emerging markets at the Wireless Communications Division of SPS' Wireless Subscriber Systems Group in Austin, Texas.
"This is not a one-size-fits-all marketplace, despite what might be heard from players emerging from the PC market," Harper said, adding that Motorola continues to work closely with new Palm developments."
While the Dragonball has a top performance of 33 MHz, Intel has been touting clock-cycle performance of 600 MHz to 1 GHz for its XScale, and TI is bringing out enhanced versions of its TMS320C5x DSP and an ARM9 processor to expand the performance levels of its platform.
Motorola's ability to provide the right mix of performance vs. power consumption to meet specific embedded applications has allowed the chip maker to succeed, and the company will continue to prosper as the PDA and cellular handset potentially converge in the next few years, Harper said.
Another entry is the Intel Personal Client Architecture (IPCA), a platform for handheld electronic appliances based on the XScale. IPCA is similar in structure and intent to TI's Open Multimedia Applications Platform (OMAP).
In 3G platforms, IPCA will use the X-Scale for an application engine and likely a hybrid baseband processor that will include the XScale and a DSP being jointly developed with Analog Devices Inc. OMAP will use a hybrid TMS320C55x DSP and ARM9 for both the applications engine and baseband processor.
In Motorola's 3G platform, a future-generation Dragonball processor and possibly a DSP will be used for the applications engine, and a hybrid with an MCore 340 processor and StarCore 140 DSP will be used for the baseband processor, according to Harper.
SPS also announced at the Embedded Systems Conference the first details of its digital transceiver IC for 3G handsets, which will provide RF/IF functionality to meet multimode cellular protocols, including GSM, DCS, TDMA, and AMPS.
The MC13760, manufactured on a BiCMOS process, will interface directly to a baseband processor for use in portable equipment, said Behrooz Abdi, general manager of SPS' RF/IF Division in Phoenix.
The device, slated for volume production later this month, features fractional-N synthesizers, a reconfigurable zero IF receiver with programmable bandwidth, receive A/D conversion, multirate data interface to a baseband DSP, a direct-launch digital modulator, and full transmit support circuits.
Having separate components for the emerging handheld applications will be key to winning major designs, Abdi said. "A lot of the top-tier customers are not looking for a complete solution," he said. "They want to select specific baseband and RF/IF components for integration into their proprietary design. The second- and third-tier customers are the ones looking for a full platform."
For TI, the announcement with Handspring provides evidence of continued support for its OMAP platform, said Rick Kornfeld, general manager of TI's San Diego Wireless Center.
TI is developing a 3G solution that will be incorporated into Handspring's Springboard expansion slot in its Visor product line. The expansion slot allows for the development of plug-in applications that will run on the Visor. The TI solution will support the software user interface introduced with the Handspring VisorPhone, a GSM mobile-phone module that was also announced last week.
Others making the wireless-handheld-appliance push last week included Infineon Technologies AG and Alchemy Semiconductor Inc., as well as STMicroelectronics Inc. and Hitachi Semiconductor America Inc.
Munich, Germany-based Infineon has licensed its Carmel DSP core to Alchemy, a fabless chip company in Austin, Texas, which recently announced a 400-MHz implementation of a low-power MIPS-based processor. Alchemy has licensed synthesizable versions of the Carmel 10xx and 20xx core DSP architectures from Infineon, which will be used in future DSP/MPU hybrid implementations.
Hitachi and ST have been collaborating on the development of Hitachi's SuperH RISC architecture as the "processor of choice for personal-information electronics," said Peter Carbone, director of marketing of systems LSI at Hitachi, San Jose.
Hitachi and ST worked together to develop the SH-4, a 230- to 500-mips engine with a floating-point unit for DSP functionality, and the SH-5, which will begin sampling later this year. Further collaboration will be announced at the Microprocessor Forum next week.
The SH-5 enhances the RISC and DSP capabilities of the SuperH family, providing 700- to 1,000-mips, or 2.8- to 4-Gflops, performance, using a single-instruction multiple-data architecture.
With offerings stretching from the 26- mips SH-1 through the SH-5, the SuperH family takes a broad approach, addressing the control, consumer, and telecom markets, Carbone said.
Others, including iReady Corp., Scenix Inc., and Zilog Inc., are looking to provide Internet connectivity to any electronic product, ranging from industrial-control applications to intelligent home devices.
Zilog introduced the eZ80 Webserver, an 8-bit microprocessor that will "enable World Wide Web remote-application management without a PC," said Daryl RuDusky, vice president of Zilog's Internet processor line, Campbell, Calif.
"A cost-effective 8-bit Webserver will enable the embedded-Internet market to rapidly proliferate," RuDusky said.
Scheduled for production in January, the device is based on a 50-MHz eZ80 core and Zilog's Embedded Webserver Software Suite, which implements 15 Internet protocols, including TCP/IP. The eZ80 Webserver is designed to allow for the Internet connection of a variety of applications, including factory automation, remote monitoring, electronic transactions, modem control, and gaming.
"The eZ80 Webserver is representative of a new breed of chips that enable inexpensive direct connections to the Internet," said Will Strauss, an analyst at Forward Concepts Co., Tempe, Ariz. "It has high-speed performance, superior memory support, and a very credible DSP capability."
Mountain View, Calif.-based Scenix's SX52BD is a 100-MHz, 8-bit microprocessor targeted at the Internet-connectivity market that provides support for five Internet protocols, including TCP/IP.
The SX52BD supports the highest-demand Internet protocols, and its high-performance clock rate provides the extra mips customers need to implement in software for other applications, a spokesman said. The device can enable such applications as a home-security system that offers e-mail reports of possible intrusion or the ability to turn lawn sprinklers on and off remotely, according to Scenix.
Another take on the Internet connection comes from iReady, San Jose, which offers the Internet Tuner, a Verilog RTL code providing a TCP/IP stack that can be easily "dropped in" to any IC, said Ryo Koyama, president and chief executive.
The iReady architecture allows the Internet Tuner to process network packets at low power consumption and clock rates, as opposed to solutions that require a combination of software running on microprocessors, he said. The Internet Tuner is made for applications like a thermos sold in Japan that sends an Internet message to a connected cell phone when the thermos is used.
"We want to be the Dolby of Internet connectivity," Koyama said. "The Net is no longer the sole domain of PCs and other relatively high-priced, high-powered devices."